In the fight for LGBT equality, often it seems as if others don't understand just how normal our lives truly are. The right wing has been so effective in demonizing our community as something exotic, sexually driven, and threatening that the sheer normalcy of our existence has in large part been forgotten. By painting us solely as predatory beings, they have stripped us of our humanity. In truth, while we have sexual desires, we also work, play, sleep, eat, and breathe. Not much that could be called exciting, and certainly nothing that separates us from the rest. Those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are simply searching for our place in the world, like those around us.
In high school, I had the supreme pleasure of bastardizing the role of George Gibbs in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town. Since 1938 this piece has been performed on stages across the nation, likely in inferior productions such as mine, but, still, the play resonates. While drama teachers probably select it for its low-budget appeal, the reason Our Town continues to succeed is that it speaks to elements each and every audience member desires, denounces, or values: family, love, human interaction, and the beauty and fragility of life.
What many may not know is that playwright Thornton Wilder was actually gay. Some may find it ironic that a gay man crafted something that speaks so centrally to millions of Americans, regardless of age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but it is not altogether surprising. We all share basic, primal needs, as Wilder illustrates so skillfully in the play.
Wilder, a multifaceted individual with a host of interests and desires, was not defined by his sexuality alone. Like many Americans, he served his country in the armed forces. Like others, he was a devoted teacher. Like many of us, Wilder was bullied for being different. And, yes, he was also a sexual being, as his relationship with Samuel Steward indicates. (Steward would later go on to write homoerotica under the name Phil Andros).
The LGBT community, however, has largely been defined not from within, based on our varied attributes, but at the hands of others, often for political gain.
Prior to Stonewall, we were considered predators. After Stonewall, we were labeled hedonists. During the turbulent battle to gain access to HIV drugs, we were stereotyped as angry activists. In our efforts to reclaim the word "queer" from our tormentors, we were labeled "extreme/other." The advent of AIDS further reinforced the notion that we were somehow "diseased," and our reluctance to explore how fully HIV impacted our community, allowing AIDS to remain a specter even now, only compounds the idea that who we are and what we do are somehow illicit. We have been made the boogeyman, time and again, and the toll that has taken on our collective psyche may never be known.
In truth, while there are indeed activists, hedonists, predators, and those struggling with illness among us, there are also policeman, plumbers, librarians, and rocket scientists. The LGBT community is wider and more diverse than any one label could ever encapsulate, except, perhaps, one: "human." We are a microcosm of the world around us, reflecting the same hopes, dreams, and desires as others.
In the third act of Our Town, Wilder crafted an exchange between the deceased Emily Webb, who has just been given a glimpse of those she loved, and the God-like Stage Manager:
Emily: It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye. Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners... Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. [Pause.] The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
While neither saint nor poet, the lead character in my novel Songs for the New Depression, Gabriel Travers, could easily be switched out for Emily Webb in the scene above. When the novel begins, Gabriel has died and is contemplating how his life's choices have led to his current state. Like Emily, Gabe never took the time to fully examine and appreciate his life. Following a brutal encounter, he allowed himself to be stripped of his humanity, and it is precisely his inability to reclaim this sense of self that causes him anguish and determines his future path.
Luckily, the rest of us have an opportunity now, before it is too late, to grab hold of our lives and find ways to reclaim that mantle of wholeness. While there is no one path, the key to recapturing that sense of dignity is to embrace our authenticity and to live openly and honestly. For how can we ever attempt to be seen as fully human if we hide from others key, integral elements?
We are the people who bake your bread and fix your tires. We are actors you admire and the irritating neighbors across the way. We are in the highest levels of the power and in the breadlines and soup kitchens. And we are all equal and worthy of respect, love, and honor.
Each and every one of us has an essential place in the world, and, indeed, in our towns.
Could be one more mile, or just one step back,
In a lovers smile, down a darkened path,
Friends will take our side, enemies will curse us,
But to be alive is to know your purpose,
It's your place in the world.
(--Mary Chapin Carpenter, "A Place in the World")
(Crossposted at Huffington Post.)